As the mastermind of a complex Ravens defense, Don “Wink” Martindale is guided by a simple rule on game day: Get the 11 best players on the field.
Which hasn’t always been easy this season. Three-plus months of injuries, coronavirus concerns and inconsistency have destabilized one of the NFL’s most talented units. But in the first quarter Monday night, the Cleveland Browns faced third-and-15 at the Ravens’ 28, and so Martindale’s lineup considerations were obvious: Send out the best pass-rush group possible.
In the middle were Pro Bowl defensive tackle Calais Campbell and defensive end Derek Wolfe, key offseason acquisitions. On the edge were defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who combined for 17½ sacks last season. And blitzing was inside linebacker Patrick Queen, a first-round draft pick and one of the NFL’s fastest players at the position.
Six Cleveland drives ended in the end zone Monday, but not this one. The Ravens held strong, and kicker Cody Parkey missed the subsequent 39-yard field-goal attempt. Perhaps no play better epitomized the recent struggles of their pass rush than this one, though: Here were five defensive nuisances, and the best they could manage was getting a hand on quarterback Baker Mayfield before a 7-yard scramble.
For the second time in three games, the Ravens ended their 47-42 win in Cleveland with no sacks. It was not an altogether bad night; the Browns have one of the NFL’s best lines, Mayfield is an elusive target, the officials missed some holding penalties and Ngakoue and rookie defensive tackle Justin Madubuike had disruptive performances.
But considering the Ravens’ investments over the past year, there has been no performance more erratic than the pass rush’s this season. A group that started the season with one of the NFL’s highest sack rates, then added one of the league’s most productive edge rushers, has now fallen mostly silent.
“We’re just trying to get it better,” coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. “We’re just trying to improve and create more pressures, create more sacks. And that was a big factor in the game. [Mayfield] getting out a few times and making those plays was something we didn’t want to allow him to do, and he did it.”
The Ravens (8-5) enter Sunday’s must-win game against the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars (1-12) with 28 sacks in 13 games, tied for 17th most in the NFL. They’re on pace to finish the season with 34 sacks — three fewer than they had last season. Elsewhere, they rank eighth in pass-rush win rate, according to ESPN, and 17th in pressure rate, according to Pro-Football-Reference.
As with the Ravens’ passing game, there are no simple explanations for the drop-off. Martindale noted last week that quick-strike quarterbacks like the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger are tough to sack, and he explained that the Ravens had taken a more conservative approach against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 13. The absence of veterans like Campbell, Judon and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee in recent weeks has also limited the pass rush’s versatility.
The narrative was different two months ago. Through Week 6, when the Ravens sacked Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz six times, the team ranked second in the NFL in takedowns (22), behind only the Steelers.
Then, in Week 7, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta sent two draft picks to the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for Ngakoue, who’d ranked 11th in the NFL in sacks and eighth in quarterback hits over the past four seasons. Since his Ravens debut in Week 8, the defense has just six sacks in seven games. Only the Cincinnati Bengals (five sacks in six games) have fewer in that span.
Perhaps a regression was inevitable. Thirteen of those 22 early sacks came in back-to-back weeks against Cincinnati and Philadelphia, which have two of the NFL’s worst lines. And after returning from their bye week, the Ravens have twice faced Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh, which has the league’s best adjusted sack rate, according to Football Outsiders.
Also on their schedule: the Indianapolis Colts (No. 6 in adjusted sack rate), New England Patriots (No. 23, but a run-heavy offense), Tennessee Titans (No. 8 and run-heavy), Dallas (No. 11) and Cleveland (No. 16 and run-heavy). Campbell, who leads the team in sacks (four) despite last posting one in Week 6, missed three of those games and is still working his way back to full strength after a calf strain and bout with COVID-19.
“When they’re healthy, they’re as good — if not better — than any other team out there as far as rushing the quarterback,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said in a conference call Wednesday. “They have a lot of different ways to create a rush, whether it just be four [rushers] or whether they want to bring five or more. And the players that are rushing are all skilled as far as their technique, what they want to do and how they want to attack you. So, like I said, for our guys, it’ll be a big challenge for them.”
A healthier defense could also produce a more fearsome pass rush. The Ravens were most dangerous up front when cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith were healthy enough to hold up in coverage, series after series, game after game. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Ravens’ blitz rate has fallen from a league-leading 54.9% in 2019 to a still-league-leading 42.3% this year.
With Madubuike coming off his strongest game this season, Campbell and Judon another week removed from their COVID-19 infections and Ngakoue getting “closer and closer to being a Raven and executing the packages,” according to Martindale, there’s optimism for a turnaround. The Ravens have the talent — on paper, anyway — to dismantle game plans.
These next three weeks could be a get-right stretch for the defense. Jacksonville’s offense, at No. 25 overall, is the most efficient of the Ravens’ final opponents, according to Football Outsiders. Quarterback Gardner Minshew has been sacked at least three times in five of eight games this season. The New York Giants, the Ravens’ Week 16 opponent, rank No. 25 in adjusted sack rate, while the Joe Burrow-less Bengals are No. 27.
Ngakoue, who has just one sack in six Ravens games, was asked Thursday whether he felt like he was close to breaking through after another oh-so-close week.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Sometimes, that’s how the game is, but they come in bunches when they roll in. So you just have to continue to have a mindset of, ‘I can’t give up. I won’t stop. I’ll keep rushing, regardless.’”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 13